Museum of Modern Art announces the gift of Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon

The Museum of Modern Art has announced the gift of Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon (1959) by the Family of Ileana Sonnabend.

Robert Rauschenberg Canyon 1959. © 2012 Museum of Modern Art. Photo by John Wronn.

Canyon is one of Robert Rauschenberg’s best-known Combines—a term the artist invented to describe works that combine art materials and a rich variety of other elements. It had been in Sonnabend’s collection from the year of its creation until the dealer’s death in 2007.

Canyon joins five other Combines in MoMA’s collection that form an in-depth context for thiskeyareaofRauschenberg’swork: Bed(1955),agiftfromLeoCastelliinhonorofAlfredH. Barr, Jr. in 1989; Rebus (1955); Rhyme (1956); Factum II (1957); and First Landing Jump (1961).

It was in 1959, in the catalogue to the exhibition Sixteen Americans at The Museum of Modern Art, that Rauschenberg published his now famous statement, “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)” With that point of departure, virtually anything was fair game for Rauschenberg’s creations, and the Combines achieve their ends through the entirely unexpected deployment of the selected components.

Canyon is believed to have been inspired in part by Rembrandt’s painting The Rape of Ganymede (1635, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), which takes as its subject the Greek myth of Zeus’ abduction of a small boy to Mount Olympus to serve as his cupbearer. Whereas Rembrandt painted the eagle that carried the boy away, Rauschenberg used a stuffed bald eagle that he had received from his friend the artist Sari Dienes. The eagle balances upon a wood plank, from which a pillow (the young captive) is suspended by a heavy string.

The medium description for Canyon reads: “oil, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, cardboard box, printed paper, printed reproductions, photograph, wood, paint tube, and mirror on canvas, with oil on bald eagle, string and pillow.” The various found materials are organized within a relatively orderly vertical structure in a surface united by vividly brushed and splashed passages of paint that show the impact of Abstract Expressionist predecessors such as Willem de Kooning.

Rauschenberg had begun to make Combine paintings late in 1954, and over the following years their contents became more and more unusual. Perhaps most notorious are the Combines that involve taxidermy, such as Canyon; Odalisk (1955/58, Museum Ludwig, Cologne), which incorporates a Plymouth Rock rooster; and Monogram (1955-59, Moderna Museet, Stockholm), incorporating an Angora goat.

Canyon was exhibited for the first time in Rauschenberg’s March-April 1960 solo exhibition at the Castelli Gallery in New York. In 1964, it was exhibited as part of the United States’ presentation at the Venice Biennale, at which Rauschenberg was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting.
Canyon is now on view in The Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Galleries for painting and sculpture on the fourth floor. A special exhibition saluting the remarkable legacy of Ileana Sonnabend as a gallerist and collector will be presented at the Museum in 2013. –